Another Sermon: Parshat Toldot
Monday November 19th 2007, 1:59 am
Filed under: Sermons

About once every 2 or 3 years, one of my local rabbinic colleagues asks me to be rent-a-rabbi on Shabbat morning when he or she is otherwise engaged. Here’s my most recent:

“This is the saga of Ytzkhak ben Avraham. Avraham sired Yitzhak.” So begins our Torah for this Shabbat.

Now when I was a student at the Hebrew Union College many moons ago, one of the courses we were required to take was something called Homiletics. Do you know voss maint dos Homiletics? Do you what Homiletics means?

Homiletics is the science of writing a D’var Torah, or in simple English, Homiletics is art of writing sermons. Now, one of the most important principles I remember learning in the art and science of homiletics is, “never preach against the Torah’s text.” Never say, “Hey! The Torah is wrong here.” Never say, “I know the Torah says we should do A, but we should do B.” Never preach against the text. Well, every rule is meant to be broken.

Torah introduces this section of tale by saying, “This is the saga of Yitzhkak ben Avraham,” The Torah is mistaken. Dare I say it? The Torah is wrong. It should have said, “This is the saga of Rivka bat Betuel,” Because in fact, this is not really Yitzkhak’s story. It is Rivka’s.

Yitzhak was one of those poor unlucky souls who starts out life as the son of his father and ends up his life as the father of his son. Do you know who Moses Mendolsohn was? Moses Mendolsohn was a German Jew who lived around the time of the American Revolution. He was a great philosopher, a theologian. He was one of the first Jews to confront modernity, the modern age. If you’re listing the top ten Jewish thinkers of all time, Moses Mendolsohn might not make the list, but if you stretch it to the top twenty, he probably would. Now, do you know who Felix Mendolsohn was? He was a very well known composer. He’s not Bach or Beethoven, but it’s not at all unusual for a major symphony orchestra to include his Piano Concerto in G minor in their program. Now, do you know who Abraham Mendolsohn was? No, of course you don’t. Abraham Mendolsohn was the son of Moses Mendolsohn and the father of Felix Mendolsohn. The only other thing that he is famous for is that he was a famous meshumad. Meshumad is someone who leaves Judasim for something else. It means “one who has been destroyed.”

Now Yitzkhak was certainly not so extreme as Abraham Mendolsohn, khas v’shalom. But he was the son of Avraham, the very first human being to discern that God is one. And he was the father of Ya’akov, who became Yisrael, the one who wrestles with God, the one whose name we all bear. But Yitzhak, what did he do? Well, he was bound, almost sacrificed on Mt, Moriah. What else did he do? Well, he became wealthy. G*d talked to him a couple of times. That’s about it. Of the three patriarchs, he is certainly the minor character.

But Yitzhkak’s greatness was not really in anything of his own doing. Yitzhkak’s greatest achievement was to be Rivka’s husband.

Let’s look at this week’s Torah’s back story for just a moment. In last week’s Torah portion, Rivka is introduced. Avraham is old. Sarah has just died. Avraham wants to find a bride for Yitzhak. In true Jewish fashion, Avraham knew that none of the local girls was good enough for his son. So he dispatched his servant to go back to his birthplace, back to Nahor, to find a bride for his son. So the servant accepts the challenge and travels hundreds of miles and arrives at Nahor, and he thinks, “OK, how am I going to find a girl for Yizkhak?”

So he’s parked his camel by the town well; and he gets a bright idea, “It’s the time of day when the girls come out to fill their water jugs. I’ll pick some lovely some lovely damsel and ask her for a drink of water, and if she offers to water my camels as well, then I’ll know this is the right girl.” And no sooner does he think this that here comes little Rivkele out to fill her water jugs, and he asks her for a drink, and she say, “Sure; and let me water your camels too.”

So then the servant gives her a few expensive gifts and just as he finagles an invitation from the girl to meet her family. So as soon as Abraham’s servant is introduced to Rivka’s mishpukha, he tells them all what just happened and they say, “OOOoookay!! But hey!! We won’t want to lose our sister, our daughter quite so quickly; hang out here with us for a few weeks and then take her with you.” But the servant says, “Nope; I’m in a hurry. I promised Avraham I’d get back to him ASAP.” And so Rivka’s brother asks her, “What do you think, Rivka.” And Rivka says, “Give me 20 minutes to pack a suitcase and I’m atta here.”

So what kind of girl is this? She is very kind; offering a stranger to go to the trouble of watering his animals. But she is also someone who knows her destiny. She is someone who knows that when opportunity knocks, you don’t waste time hanging out with your girl friends at the corner Starbucks. She has a certain instant intuition about the enormous gravity of the moment and she responds; she leaves with this stranger to go to a place she knows nothing about to marry a man she knows even less of. She leaves that same day!

So she goes home to meet Yitzhak and they marry and that brings us to this week’s parasha; where the first thing it tells us is that she has trouble getting pregnant; In the Torah everyone has trouble getting pregnant. Especially the women.

But then she does become pregnant and she has a most difficult pregnancy. She is terribly uncomfortable. Week after week. So what does she do? She prays, she meditates, she visualizes, she seeks the fount of her own deepest wisdom, and finally she has an insight. A flash of understanding. Somehow she sees clearly; she knows what is happening:

Two boys are growing within her. Each will be the ancestor a nation. They are struggling with one another inside of her. And she so she somehow knows automatically that their struggles will continue through their lifetimes and for generations after.

So think about Rivka as she digests this knowledge. Every new parent has all sorts of dreams and plans and fantasies and fears about their unborn children. But this is Rivka; who we’ve already seen knows her destiny; knows that she is called for a higher purpose. Knows that when it’s time to act, it’s time to act.

So the boys are born, struggling with each other as they emerge. And they grow; and we know the story, how the older boy Eysav becomes an outdoorsman, a hunter, strong, physical guy. And the younger boy, Yaakov is domestic, a home body; he’s the one with the brains. He reads, he thinks, maybe he writes or he invents a few new and better tools.

And when the moment is right, Yaakov buys his brother’s birthright, his legal right to the greater share of his father’s wealth, he buys it for a cup of soup. Eysav might have been a great hunter, but he wasn’t so smart. This was a bad bargain.

Imagine Rivka when she heard this story. She already knows, her younger son is like her. He’s the one with the brains. He knows he has a destiny. She knows he has a destiny. She sees what’s going on. She’s a mother. She loves both her sons. She loves Eysav dearly. But this is the woman who knows the higher meaning of things. Who knows that when the wheel comes around it only stops on your number once; who knows that the struggle of her boys within her is manifesting itself on this earth.

So she waits until the day when her husband is ill, he’s near death and she hears how he asks Eysav to go hunt up some game and feed him one last meal of fresh meat. And then, she hears him say he will give Eysav his blessing. Why was this blessing so important? This blessing is Yitkhak’s signed, notarized contract that says, “You are my favored one who will carry on the legacy I received from my father Avraham.” You know how if you sign a contract, and you’re taken to court, you can’t say, “Oh gosh! I never read that contract.” If you sign it, it is real. You are responsible. Even if you did not intend to sign it. Yitzkhak is about to sign.

Rivka knows what she must do. She must engineer the situation so Yaakov receives that blessing, that contract, that assurance that the saga of Avraham continues through him. It must have pained Rivka greatly to set up this scene that would cause her son Eysav such pain and humiliation. It must have been agonizing for her to create the scene that would make her husband’s last hours on earth so dreadfully uncomfortable. But she did it. She had to do it. Just like she had to leave her father’s house. Just like she had to realize the truth about the birthright.

Rivka was the one that made it all happen. And we are all the descendents of Yaakov. We are the domestic people; we are the thinkers, the artists, the builders, the writers, the creative people. We are not great outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen. Most of us. Eysav may be our uncle, but we’re not cut from his cloth.

We are so very, very proud of our star Jewish athletes, our Sandy Koufax’s and Mark Spitz’s and Sarah Hughes’s. But most of us are not them. Most of us are more domestic. As a group, we do a lot better at collecting Nobel prizes than we do at collecting Olympic medals.

We survive by Jewish brain power. First and foremost. And we’ve survived this way for 3500 years. No one has survived as long as us. And no one has survived the way we have, moving from one country to next, learning new languages, living in diverse cultures, from North Africa to Spain to England to Poland to Russia to North America. We’ve survived by our domesticity. By our brains. Not so much by our physical strength. And I say this as a onetime midlife marathon runner and wannabe triathlete.

You see, Rivka knew all this. Rivka knew that her legacy would survive with Yaakov, not with Eysav. She was the one who made it all happen.

We pray 3 times each day to our God, the God Avraham, Yitzhkak and Yaakov. It never would have happened without our Matriarchs. They belong in there too. The Amida should include “Elohaynu vaylohay imahoteynu; elohay Sara, elohay Rivka, elohay Layah, veylohay Rakhel” This isn’t really the saga of Yitzhak that we read this week. It is truly the saga of Rivka.

I have belonged to this Conservative Movement congregation for over 22 years. Before that I was ordained by the yeshiva of the Reform Movement, as I served in that movement for a dozen years. And before that I grew up Orthodox. So I am one of those rare people who has earned the right to dump criticism on all three.

This week, the Reform Movement is issuing a new Siddur. It’s a weird book. It some ways it’s the most traditional Reform Prayerbook in a hundred years. But this is already the second reform prayerbook that has added the names of the Emahot, of our matriarchs, to the first paragraph of the Amida. They’ve already been doing that for 15 years. Now it’s our turn. I know, it took the Conservative movement 25 years to issue a modern Torah commentary for use in the Synagogue. I don’t expect a replacement for Sim Shalom in my lifetime. But it’s time for us, at the very least, when we pray “Barukh ata Ad*nai, eloheynu v’eylohey avotaynu”, in our hearts and with our lips, we should add another phrase; we should all say, “Barukh ata Ad*nai, elohaynu vaylohay Avotaynu v’emahotaynu; Elohay Avraham, eloyay Yitzkhak, vayloya Yaakov; Elohay Sara, elohay Rivka, Elohay Layah vaylohat Rakhel;” We praise G*d who is the G*d of our fathers, and also G*d of our Mothers; G*d of Avraham, Yitzkhak and Ya’akov; and G*d of Sarah, Rivka, Layah and Rakhel.

And while we’re at it, here’s another one tho think about: we should be very careful about pronouns we use with G*d. How about this: for every time we refer to G*d with “He,” the next time we use a pronoun with G*d, let’s call G*d “She.”

Throughout most of our history, we’ve had very strong lines between what men do and what women do. We had strong gender-linked roles. Men were the spiritual leaders in the synagogue. Men studied Torah. Women didn’t do those things. Women found spirituality in other ways.

In the last 30 years, that’s changed incredibly. When I was a student at the Hebrew Union College, the very first woman ever was ordained rabbi. Now, over half of all the new rabbis ordained in the Reform movement are women. I do not know the percentage of new Conservative ordainees who are women, but I’ll bet you Conservative will catch Reform within a dozen years. We’re getting there.

Yitzkhak would not have made it without Rivke. Sometimes it happens that the women make it all happen. That’s how it’s been in my household too.

Shabbat Shalom



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